Location: The Louvre, Paris France
Stolen: 21 August 1911
Artwork: ‘Mona Lisa’ by Leonardo da Vinci
Value today: estimated at $1,200,000,000 AUD
At the time, the Louvre Museum in Paris was closed to the public every Monday (these days it is closed on Tuesdays). Employees entered the Museum around 7:00 am on Monday 20 August 1911 to begin their duties; a quieter day without public visitors. Vincent Peruggia, an Italian who was formerly employed to install protective glass cases on some artworks, entered the Museum easily with other employees dressed just like them in one of the white smocks usually worn by employees.
When the room where the Mona Lisa hung was empty, he quietly removed the painting from its wall hooks and took it to a service stairwell. There he removed a protective glass case and the frame and wrapped it in the smock he had been wearing. He made his way out of the building through the employee entrance where he had come in, with the painting under his arm.
It was 24 hours before anyone noticed it was missing, but it quickly became international news when people learned that a work by one of the Renaissance masters had been taken. On the Tuesday, French painter, Louis Béroud had come to sketch the painting and had been surprised to find only a vacant wall space. He asked guards about the reason for the absence; they assumed it had been taken away to be photographed to promote the Louvre’s collection. But hours later Béroud returned and the painting was still missing. The alarm was raised and the Museum closed for a week while investigations began.
At one stage a botched police inquiry accused Pablo Picasso of its theft. Peruggia had been interviewed twice during the investigations, but had been ruled out as a suspect.
Peruggia successfully hid the painting in his Paris apartment for two years. Ultimately though, he wanted it returned to Italy believing that it belonged to the Italian people and that Napoleon had stolen it. He returned to Italy in 1913 with the painting and concealed it in his apartment in Florence.
Peruggia became impatient. In 1912 he had written to his father saying ‘I am making a vow for you to live long and enjoy the prize that your son is about to realize for you and for all our family.’ He expected money for returning the painting to what he thought of as its rightful place. He approached Alfredo Geri, owner of a Florentine art gallery, who sought expert advice on the likelihood that the painting was genuine. Late in 1913 arrangements were made for Peruggia to store the painting with Geri for safekeeping. The police were contacted and Peruggia was arrested.
The recovery of the painting was widely celebrated in Italy and it toured all over the country. The theft significantly increased its fame and notoriety due to the publicity generated and the magnitude of the police investigation that had occurred.
The Italian public regarded Peruggia as a hero. He was jailed with a lenient sentence since the judge trying his case saw his crime as partly an attempt to be patriotic, although he had not tried to donate the painting, but rather get some money for it. His sentence was one year and fifteen days, but he was released after seven months.
The work was returned to the Louvre in 1913. Today the work is kept in rigorous climate-controlled conditions behind bullet-proof glass. Crowds make it difficult to get close to the painting, and even to see it if you are not tall! A handrail protrudes from the wall to keep a gap between the painting and the congested gallery space.
In 1962, Jackie Kennedy pressed for ‘Mona Lisa’ to go on tour to the USA. The painting was assessed by insurers ahead of the tour at USD $100m. The insurance was not taken out, but security was considerably increased both during the 1963 tour and at the Louvre, its permanent home since 1797. In 2020 this value translates to an estimated $860m USD.